Nantucket Gull Show, A brief chronicle of our observations, January 3, 2010.
Our adopted hosts strongly advised us not to miss “the gull show”, which is seen regularly but not predictably at Low Beach in the SE portion of Nantucket. I had actually witnessed this event many years earlier. I remembered being impressed by the number of gulls from the fleeting glimpse back then, but I thought it was probably some man-made event that brought the gulls together and never gave it another thought. The recommendation was now a day old, and we were just driving around birding and taking in the glorious winter sights. Gull viewing was not high on my list of things to do this trip.
At some point in our travels we lurched back into Iphone range in the mid afternoon. We found a short message from Edie Ray that said the show was on, get down to Low Beach now. Those few words got the adrenalin flowing. We knew only vaguely where Low Beach was, so we dug out a map, and found a road near Low Beach. Hoping we were in the right area, we followed a sand track into tundra like area that was probably the Low Beach parking area. It was cold, snowing and the wind was blowing relentlessly out of the NW. Suitably geared up we marched out over the dunes with bins, scope and a camera with a long zoom lens into the sting of driven snow, salt spray and sand on our faces. The following is a chronicle of our observations.
A pleasant diversion along the way to The Gull Show.
When we reached the sand beach we could see the seas churning away and occasionally distant Scoters and Long-tailed ducks flying back and forth, but there was no sign of The Gull Show. We walked along the sand beach, west towards Tom Nevers Beach and soon flushed two pale sparrows. We had found the CBC reported Ipswich race of the Savannah Sparrows and spent a few minutes watching them deal with wind and cold. Nothing seemed to faze them; they hunkered down in the lee of beach debris, sand banks and snowdrifts and they even managed to forage among exposed dune grasses for seeds. Their breeding grounds on Cape Sable Island and their pale coloration made them seem ideally suited for winter on a windswept Nantucket beach.
We find the Gull Show, but it’s not just gulls.
We continued walking down the beach and soon noticed gulls wheeling above the breaking surf. The wind blowing from the NW was ripping the tops off of the storm driven waves that were coming in from the SE. It was remarkable to be a close up witness to this caldron of swirling salt sea.
Further down the beach, we saw Gulls and Sanderling on the beach and further out we could see rafts of gulls and ducks foraging in the surf line.
We found The Gull Show. Here are more photos show the business of the winter surf guild at Low Beach, Nantucket, which I call the The Dance of the Winter Surf Feeding Guild:
We were now seeing dozens of Lesser Black Back Gulls; they out-numbered the Greater Black Backs in the surf zone. Iceland Gulls were plentiful too. Later reviewing hundreds of photos, I rarely found a group photo that did not contain either Iceland and/or Lesser Black Backs. At this point we began to try to make sense of what we were seeing. It was clear that this was not just a gull show. Over the course of the next three quarters of an hour we observed the following species lumped broadly into two groups, the winter surf guild and all others.
Group one, birds seen from the beach, but not regularly feeding in the surf. Great Black Gull, Long-tailed Duck, Surf Scoters, Black Scoters, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Loon, Red-throated Loon, Sanderling, Black-bellied Plover, Ipswich Sparrow.
Group two, the winter surf-feeding guild, these birds were seen regularly foraging in the breaking surf: Herring Gulls, Bonaparte Gulls. Lesser-black Backed Gulls, Iceland Gulls, Common Eider, Common Golden-eyes, Barrow Golden-eyes, Buffleheads, and Black Duck.
It was a simply mesmerizing spectacle, the powerful breaking, wind blown, waves, and the seemingly choreographed movements of foraging gulls and ducks among the raging surf. In the calm periods between crashing surf, just off the beach, various members of the surf-feeding guild would energetically forage for items near the surface of the churning water. As the waves crashed in, the gulls would take flight, and ducks would either swim over or dive under the breaking waves. Once the wave passed, the guild members would resume their feeding strategies as if nothing had happened. The cycle of calm feeding, breaking wave escape, and the return to resting, or foraging, played over and over again in a constantly changing spectacle. For hundreds of yards in either direction we could see various portions of this tableau, in it the drama would change subtly and the players would rearrange themselves as if moving to tunes that we could not hear.
What was the draw that brought these different birds together such concentration here in the surf at Low Beach? It appeared to us that it must be the food, as the birds were clearly eating something they found in the surf. Some combination of tides, currents, and wind brings to this surf zone a predictable, repeating, floating buffet or seafood soup. We have more questions about the make up of the soup than answers. We could clearly see however that the water in the surf zone contained a massive amount of colorful floating bits that looked like seaweed or algae. Was there also an invertebrate component of this soup, we could not say? But what was certain is that this soup brought at least four species of gulls and five species of ducks here to forage side by side in the surf zone moveable feast.
The Dance of the Winter Surf Guild goes on.
Thanks for joining us. The Nantucket Gull Show has to rank up there among the most awesome winter wildlife spectacles in the Western Atlantic. Nantucket also offers the opportunity to see two more great winter spectacles. The amazing dawn and dusk flights of thousands of Long-tailed Ducks is one. Another is a chance to view wheeling flocks of hundreds of feeding Northern Gannets approaching like a rolling snow storm as the leading flank plunge dives and the rear echelon leaves the water to join the flock for another dive. I’ve seen them both in Winter on Nantucket and without doubt “The Gull Show” ranks right up there. Thanks again to Edie Ray for alerting us to the spectacle, and for helping to bring the excitement back to gulls.
Townsend P. Dickinson
Author & Photographer
P.S. Quiz question for you. How many different species of Gulls and Ducks can you find in these images. Send us your totals and names of each species and see who can get the most species.
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Lovely images, yoru work is beautiful. I saw my first seagull show the other day in Fairfield CT, a mini-show compared to this one! I’m posting them soon. Thanks Mardi!
This was so wonderful to see! Ah, fantastic photos of the gulls dancing in flight within of the churn of the stormy sea.
Thank you so very much for posting this article and sharing with us,
Thank you so much for sharing this incredible bird show. I was mesmerized by your stunning photographs and captivating words. I felt your regret in your last photo, as every birder knows, at having to leave as the light fades and the day is gone. But your story was almost like being there without the wind chill factor.
Awesome. Feels like one is really partaking in the experience. Beautifully written.
WowEEEEEEE ..what a ride..awesome post and photos! Thanks for taking us along!
Wow, what an incredible chronicle. I really enjoyed the show and loved the descriptions of this ‘moveable feast’ and ‘choreographed’ flights of the dinner guests. I love winter for this reason: so many hidden treasures under all the cold and wind. Thanks for sharing your beautiful photographs and braving the elements to bring this to us. Thinking of you two in your warm parkas.
Nice writeup and photos – I’ll have to try for it sometime. Keep up the good work!
What a magnificent experience. Exquisite photos and compelling story. Fascinating story for all – not just bird watchers. Do I sense a book in the making?
The shot at the beginning of this article has it all. Great shot! It was nice to be brought in to your adventure surrounding these photos.
Happy New Year!
An amazing sight! Your excellent description made me feel like I was there. Thanks.
Several of us CT birders were at this amazing gull show exactly one year to the day after your stunning photos were taken and it is as truly amazing as you described. During our time there Patrick Dugan found us a Thayer’s Gull and a Little Gull, that both provided great looks. The 20 thousand streaming Eider were a nice bonus too.
You two blow my mind every time… Terrific images! …and two wonderful people! What a delight on both counts!
WOW!! As you said, mesmerizing!! Great shots and great story! Loved the combo!
What a wonderful post! The photos are breathtaking and the description is beautifully written. I didn’t even feel cold, although you two must have been freezing in the wind!